Nafkote Tamirat launched her novel The Parking Lot Attendant at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn last month. She was joined for conversation by Sam Graham-Felsen. The Parking Lot Attendant follows an unnamed narrator and her father in a utopian commune, but then also looks at the immigrant community in Boston as a way of explaining how these characters arrived.
Tamirat, who now lives in Paris, is from Boston. Her parents were Ethiopian, and as a result she grew up within Boston’s immigrant community. In her childhood, it seemed everyone she knew was an Ethiopian immigrant. She jokes that many of the people from that community were parking lot attendants even though there are no parking lots in Ethiopia.
For many years, parking lots were all cash businesses. This allowed attendants to have a certain degree of power and control over the product that they were selling and over their labor.
She set the novel in Boston not just because of her familiarity with it, but because Boston needed more diversity in the stories written about it. Boston is a “stunningly white” city, Tamirat explains, and the literary traditions in Boston are typically white and male.
Boston has been decreed a certain kind of American city, yet there are lots of minority groups that live within it and who are often ignored. Many Bostonians don’t know or see the diversity, and Tamirat wanted to tell those other stories.
While she was growing up, she was immersed with Ethiopian culture, and often when she spoke English, her parents ignored her. Tamirat attended Boston Latin, a prestigious and difficult school to enroll in. But Boston Latin also taught a traditional western canon, and in a way denied the validity of the Ethiopian culture. She describes it as a place that had a strict mold for their students that often minority students found difficult to fit into.
Graham-Felsen describes The Parking Lot Attendant as a literary novel with a strong plot and praises Tamirat as page-turning.
“I’m not good at plot at all,” Tamirat says, adding that constructing the plot of the novel required a lot of time and editing. It took a village, she joked–plot is really hard.
In graduate school, at Columbia, a lot of the focus of workshops was on language. Plot was pedestrian for a lot of instructors. Nevertheless, they did force her to finish stories she had been writing and to add conclusions.
Tamirat says she reads a lot of procedural novels and detective stories. She likes them because she never figures them out. They are all a mystery to her.
In her own writing, Tamirat likes to seek out the mundane and then point out the absurdity of the situation. The model is not unlike a comedy routine.
The narrator of the novel is the person Tamirat wanted to be in high school. She was introverted then, she says, and the character was an opportunity to think like someone who wasn’t.
When people asked what she wanted to do as an adult, she would say she wanted to be famous. Though she had enjoyed writing, she never thought of it as a career. School made her anxious, the need to succeed made her anxious. She didn’t declare a college major until her third year when she had been compelled to. At the time she had a literature class. The professor suggested she should become a writer.
Writing has been one thing she has done consistently and has wanted to do. “I don’t want to be an actress anymore.”